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‘I welcome return of stolen African arts’

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Rowland Abiodun

Rowland Abiodun is John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA.

He is the author of Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014), What Follows Six Is More than Seven: Understanding African Art (1995); co-author of Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (1989), Yoruba Art and Aesthetics (1991), and Cloth Only Wears to Shreds: Yoruba Textiles and Photographs from the Beier Collection (2004); and co-editor of The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts (1994). Abiodun was a consultant for the Smithsonian World Film, Kindred Spirits: Contemporary Nigerian Art.

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A former member and chair of the Herskovits Book Award Committee of the African Studies Association, Abiodun has also served on the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association and as the President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association. He chaired the Executive Board of the Five College African Scholars Program, Amherst, Massachusetts, and has been interviewed by the BBC World Service on the Art of Africa.

In 2011, he received the Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association in recognition of his excellence, innovative contributions, and vision in the fields of African and Diasporic Arts. Prof Abiodun who will be 80 on July 25 spoke with OLAYINKA OYEGBILE on African Arts, life in America where he has taught for over three decades and more.

What is the state of art education today in view of the incursion of technology?
TECHNOLOGY is an integral component of all educational goals today, art education included. To be real innovators in the world of art, we need to be more than copycats. While I welcome the incursion of technology, it would be wise to know that it is a tool – one which can be used to project our contributions as Africans to the world of art education.

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Do you miss Nigeria, or more appropriately, what do you miss most about the country since you left about 30 years ago?
I miss the country that constitutes the foundations and the inspirations of my research in African art. I miss the vibrant culture of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) enlivened by colleagues who were equally ecstatic about our quest for knowledge. When I joined the University, I was allocated Omígbọ̀dùn House as my home. It was on Arùbídi Street in Ifẹ̀ town, next to Ori Olókun Cultural Centre, and within walking distance of Ọ̀pá Ọ̀rànmíyàn (the staff of Ọ̀rànmíyàn). I witnessed the performance of many rites there.

Frequently, I walked to Ẹnuwá, the Ọọ̀ni’s palace and a number of important shrines including Òkemògún (the site for Ọlọ́jọ́/Ọlọ́jọ́-òní festival and annual rites). The location of my residence was priceless to my physical involvement in, and understanding of the ancient city’s culture, facilitating intimate interaction with its dynamism. This embodied intimacy was an indelibly penetrating experience, which resonates through my work. It is imprinted at the intersection of the evanescent observed activities and the intangibilities of memory. The intangible but profound, in turn, vibrates in the scribal permanence of my scholarship.

You taught at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) for over 20 years. Tell us what your experience was like compared to what is obtainable in the U.S.
The Ife experience of the 70s and 80s cannot be replicated outside Africa. As pioneers in Yoruba Studies, we were at the centre of the culture we were studying, yet we were also in touch with the rest of the world, as scholars from different parts of the world streamed into and out of Ife in the heyday of the birth of modern African scholarship, and our work gathered attention globally.

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The Nigerian economy, university system, and social fabric began deteriorating in the 80s, triggering an exodus of Nigerian scholars to the West, often the United States. In the West, we have everything we need to do the best scholarship, except the lived environment that is the inspiration for scholars of Africa, especially those of us who study its cultures.

I took with me what I had gained in order to better develop it in the United States. The exodus of African scholars there in the late 80s combined various economic and social factors to make the United States the centre of African Studies. The relocation of this centre outside Africa has contributed to a similar decentering of African cultures as the primary sources for methodologies in my discipline. This has occurred even as the African academic environments themselves struggle with colonial mindsets. My work has opposed this trend by contributing to the discourse that privileges Africa as the epistemic center. This moves Africa from being simply the object of study to being the source of the methods for the study of Africa – essentially seeking the African in African art, the subtitle of my 2014 book. That book, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art privileges naming and affirming Africa’s own epistemologies and ontologies (ways of knowing, and ways of being) as the primary source for understanding its art.

Have you received your pension, if no, why?
No. I did not. It was not particularly convenient to jump over all the bureaucratic hurdles that made it almost impossible for anybody to access their hard-earned money.

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You left Nigeria 30 years ago and have not come back, why?
So much has changed from the Nigeria I knew. What was once considered relatively normal expectations like electricity, water, personal safety, and funds to do regular research have become increasingly difficult to access.

Is this Nigeria of your dreams?
Of course not. My dream had been that by now we would be leading Africa on all fronts – scientifically, economically, educationally and politically.

Yoruba language is now recognized and has become an official language in some parts of the world, what do you think about this?
Every language is a carrier and repository of a people’s philosophy, history, psychology, religion, politics, and art. It seems that in those parts of the world, which you refer to, they have held on to something precious – something which we Nigerians have ignored but needs to make the cornerstone of our development.

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During the colonial era in Nigeria, speaking in vernacular (local language) in high schools, including mine, was punishable by up to 12 strokes of the cane. Now, the British colonizer does not need to be physically present for their legacy to persist. What a price to pay for “education”! Speaking, writing, and thinking in English, French, and even Latin (which is no longer even a spoken language) are enshrined and actively promoted in the Classics departments of many academic institutions of former colonies.

Today, researching and theorising African art in a colonial language and thought system is the norm. The result has been a systematic undermining of the voice and contribution of the makers and users of African art. Indeed, many scholars of Yorùbá birth are ashamed to be caught speaking their mother tongue, for fear of being called ‘illiterate’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘primitive’, and ‘not forward-looking’. This can extend even to hatred of their language and cultural heritage.

Some stolen Yoruba artworks were returned recently to Osun State, what is your take on this?
I welcome the latest trend of returning African works of art from Western museums and collections to Africa. In the meantime, a lot of irreparable damage has been done. The Western world has named and defined African art in their language and proclaimed the resulting universal.

Take, for example, the famous German explorer and scholar, Leo Frobenius whose 1913 world-acclaimed book, Voice of Africa was perceived as representing the reality of African artistic achievement. Frobenius’ ethnocentrism and mistaken attributions of the authorship of works he found at Ile-Ife have become clear with time.

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The implications of Frobenius’ title, Voice of Africa, projects an ongoing challenge of what Valentin Mudimbe’s 1988 book describes as the ‘invention’ of Africa, the discursive construction of the significance of Africa. Frobenius spoke for the continent from an admiring but uninformed position. Other voices, admiring or denigrating have also spoken for the continent from a position of inadequate understanding.

The struggle of countering the problems created by these ‘voices’ without adequate epistemological alertness in African art studies is an ongoing struggle represented by my 2014 book. One of the great ironies of African history is that the struggle to liberate African epistemology is carried out using tools of writing and scholarship introduced to Africa by colonization. What directions could that history have taken without the disruptive yet partially empowering – as with the introduction of widespread writing – the impact of Western political, cultural, and religious colonization?

Your latest book Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African art was controversial, why?
None of the reviewers of my book have thus far suggested that my book is ‘controversial’. I wouldn’t either. The book clears the ground of weeds, replacing them with healthy crops. The book is subtitled “Seeking the African in African Art.”

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For a long time, the African was “lost” in studies of African art; his or her voice was muted or elided by those who ignored or downplayed its existence and value. The book is a culmination of a career dedicated to centering that voice and excavating its message.

Reviews of my book in internationally renowned academic journals give credence to my approach in foregrounding these voices.

It’s fairly easy to understand why my book has not been like any other in the field of African art. Growing up in Yorùbáland with parents, grandparents, and extended family members who lived and embodied Yorùbá traditions, my early exposure to traditional education in Yorùbá art and culture has shaped the direction of my research.

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The unity of the lived experience of Yorùbá language, artistic concepts, and belief systems and their critical study enabled me to understand the epistemological notions at the heart of the Yorùbá worldview, sensitizing me to the inseparability of Yoruba language and culture as the epistemological foundations for the study of Yoruba art. It is this commitment that has made the book different.

Sir, at 80 what are your regrets, if any and how does it feel to be 80, do you feel any different from 10 or 20 years ago?
No regrets whatsoever. There’s always an opportunity to learn and grow. I’m grateful to be alive. Of course, no one will be around forever. So, this is a good time to reflect on what one has learned over the years. I would not have done this, 10 or 20 years ago.

Finally, keeping a beard seems to be an artist’s trademark, when was the last time you shaved your beard?
I can’t remember!

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